Pac-12: Taylor Kelly

Barring any surprises, seven Pac-12 teams will welcome back starting quarterbacks in 2015. Though the list isn't as glittering as it was last year, when 10 starters returned, including eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, it's a strong crew, as good a group any other Power 5 conference will offer up.

That does mean five teams will feature new starters next fall, though that doesn't necessarily mean there will be five wide-open competitions. For example, senior Mike Bercovici is probably more locked into Arizona State's starting job than a couple of returning starters. His potential is a big reason the Sun Devils will be counted among the conference favorites next fall.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
AP Photo/Gus RuelasMike Bercovici threw 12 TD passes with four interceptions this season, and flashed plenty of potential for Arizona State.
Not only is Bercovici a senior competing with four freshmen -- two redshirts -- he came off the bench this season for Taylor Kelly and played well in three starts. He knows coordinator Mike Norvell's offense and owns a big arm that should add a significant downfield passing component.

"I see [playing this season] as a big learning experience," Bercovici said. "Being here for four seasons and, in my fourth season, I finally get to see the field as a backup. I always wanted to prove to my teammates that I’ve been prepared."

He added, "Some of the success I had this year and some of the mistakes I made are all going to help me move on to the 2015 season."

Utah and Washington both welcome back returning starters in Travis Wilson and Cyler Miles, but there figures to be some intrigue this upcoming spring and fall as they try to hold onto their jobs, with Wilson most notably embroiled in a on-going, two-season competition with Kendal Thompson.

Like Bercovici, Washington State's Luke Falk gained valuable experience this season when he replaced an injured Connor Halliday, and he is a heavy favorite to win the Cougars starting job. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA appear to have wide-open competitions, with the Bruins featuring touted incoming freshman Josh Rosen taking on an incumbent field led by Jerry Neuheisel this spring.

Bercovici was in a tight competition with Kelly heading into the 2012 season, but Kelly won the job and went on to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in program history. That could have sown the seeds of a rivalry between the two, or Bercovici could have transferred. Instead, he and Kelly became close friends.

That is why Bercovici had mixed feelings when he replaced a struggling Kelly in the Territorial Cup loss to Arizona.

"It was definitely tough to see him come off the field as a senior and for myself to come in, but we didn’t really have time to think about that during the game," he said. "Some times you have bad days when things aren’t going your way. It just sucks I couldn’t lead us to victory in that fourth quarter."

That said, he sees the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Duke on Dec. 27 as being "Taylor's game."

"This is the last time he’ll be in a Sun Devils uniform," he said. "I know he’s going to go out with a bang.”

After that, though, Bercovici will be eager to fill the ensuing vacancy behind center for a Sun Devils team expected to be in the South Division and national mix.

"This team knows this is my job moving forward," he said.

Here is how the Pac-12 sets up at quarterback for 2015, pending any unexpected NFL early entries.

2015 RETURNING STARTERS

Arizona: Anu Solomon

The skinny: Though Solomon was impressive as a redshirt freshman first-year starter, he wasn't terribly efficient, ranking 61st in the nation in Total QBR and 55th in standard passing efficiency. So there is plenty of room to get better. The good news is 1,000-yard rusher Nick Wilson will be back, as will a strong crew of receivers. The offensive line has some notable holes.

California: Jared Goff

The skinny: He threw for 331 yards per game with 35 TD passes and just seven interceptions as a true sophomore. If you are looking for a player who could breakout as a national name next fall, Goff might be your man. He has an NFL future. He also has a strong supporting cast coming back on offense -- nine returning starters -- including a deep and talented group of receivers.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau

The skinny: He passed for a school-record 28 touchdowns, but also led the Pac-12 with 15 interceptions and was briefly benched late in the season. That said, the true sophomore has talent and will likely improve as a third-year starter as the young players around him grow up. It also would help him and the Buffs if receiver Nelson Spruce returns for his senior year instead of entering the draft.

Stanford: Kevin Hogan

The skinny: Hogan ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in QBR, despite being a third-year starter with a strong group of experienced receivers. Though the Cardinal running game and offensive line was a disappointment, there were plenty of times when Hogan was inconsistent in terms of both throwing and decision-making. What Stanford wants is for Hogan to return for his senior year and play like he did against California and UCLA for an entire season. Coach David Shaw said Hogan, who was dealing with tough family situation during the season, would be the starter if he returned and wouldn't face a challenge from touted freshman Keller Chryst.

USC: Cody Kessler

The skinny: If he opts to return for his senior season, Kessler will be an All-American candidate after throwing for 36 TDs with just four interceptions and ranking sixth in the nation in QBR. If there is one criticism of Kessler, it is that he feasted on inferior foes, but didn't turn in an A-list performance against ranked teams, most notably an ineffective showing against UCLA. He should greatly benefit from the maturation of a number of young but talented players forced into action this fall, most notably on the offensive line.

Utah: Travis Wilson

The skinny: This might be the Pac-12's most interesting quarterback situation. Wilson is set to become a four-year starter, but he also might not return to the Utes for his final season. That's because coaches might want to go with Kendal Thompson, who briefly replaced Wilson in the starting lineup before getting hurt. If that's the case, Wilson can transfer with no penalty, because he is set to graduate in 2015. Utah looks like it's going to be stacked on both sides of the ball next fall -- 16 other position-player starters are set to return -- but quarterback remains the issue, as it has since Utah joined the Pac-12.

Washington: Cyler Miles

The skinny: Miles also could face a challenge for his starting spot, though the rising junior also flashed ability at times while doing a good job of protecting the football -- see just three interceptions -- and played better the second half of the season. And who might provide a legitimate challenge, as no other quarterback on the roster appears capable of unseating him. It will be interesting to see how quickly touted incoming freshman Jake Browning picks things up this spring.

2015 COMPETITIONS*

Arizona State: Mike Bercovici, Sr; Manny Wilkins, RFr; Coltin Gerhart, RFr.; Brady White, Fr.; Bryce Perkins, Fr.

The skinny: Bercovici is more certain here than a couple of the conference's returning starters. He gained valuable experience this season replacing an injured Kelly, throwing 12 TDs with four interceptions, and flashed plenty of potential, including A-list arm strength. Though the Sun Devils have stocked up on young quarterbacks, including a pair of touted incoming freshmen, Bercovici is almost a certainty here.

Oregon: Jeff Lockie, Jr.; Ty Griffin, RSo.; Taylor Alie, RSo.; Morgan Mahalak, RFr., Travis Waller, Fr

The skinny: Lockie was Mariota's backup this season and has thrown 30 passes in his career -- one TD! -- which means he will have more experience than Mariota did when he took over as a redshirt freshman. It also was a strong indicator of a pecking order when Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs opted to transfer after spring practices, as they were both behind Lockie. Both Alie and Mahalak, however, have skills, and Waller is expect to be around this spring to join the fray. And perhaps there will be a wild-card transfer?

Oregon State: Luke Del Rio, So.; Brent VanderVeen, Jr., Nick Mitchell, RFr.; Marcus McMaryion, RFr., Kyle Kempt, RSo.

The skinny: This one is wide open. Not only is there no clear leader, but you also have a new coaching staff under Gary Andersen with new schemes. VanderVeen started the season as Sean Mannion's backup, but Del Rio took over that spot about three game into the season. He threw 18 passes in mop-up duty, making him the only Beavers quarterback with any game experience. Might Andersen try to lure away Austin Kafentzis, a four-star quarterack from Sandy, Utah, from his commitment to Wisconsin, where Kafentzis originally planned to enroll early to play for Andersen? And what about James Pensyl, a 6-foot-7 hurler from Land O'Lakes, Florida, who committed to Mike Riley?

UCLA: Jerry Neuheisel, Jr., Asiantii Woulard, RSo.; Mike Fafaul, RJr., Aaron Sharp, RFr., Josh Rosen, Fr.

The skinny: Neuheisel was Brett Hundley's backup this season, and came off the bench to lead the Bruins past Texas. He is a capable, charismatic guy who probably relishes the idea of being counted out by many due to the arrival of Rosen. Rosen, however, is the guy many will be watching. Perhaps the best quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, he will participate in spring practices when he can immediately put himself into the mix.

Washington State: Luke Falk, RSo.; Peyton Bender, RFr.; Tyler Hilinski, Fr.

The skinny: Falk started fast then faded a bit after coming off the bench to replace the injured Connor Halliday, but he is the overwhelming favorite here. In four games, he threw for 1,859 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with six of those picks coming in his last two games. Still, he didn't look like a walk-on. He looked like an A-list redshirt freshman suddenly thrust into action who was struggling against good teams. Coach Mike Leach won't make it seem like Falk is locked in during spring practice, but it's his job to lose.

*Listed year in school is for 2015

Territorial Cup has hate and relevance

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
12:00
PM ET

What makes a great college football rivalry? Two things: 1. Passionate and legitimate ill will; 2. National relevance.

Arizona and Arizona State have long had the former, with the bad feelings advancing beyond the typical state rivalry because of a handful of historical issues, including the University of Arizona fighting against "Tempe Normal School" becoming an accredited university in the late 1950s. That one still grates on Sun Devils elders, while snarky Wildcats fans will call ASU "Tempe Normal" just to be annoying.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez and the Wildcats get a shot at rival Arizona State on Friday.
Those bad feelings ticked another notch forward when Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State hired Todd Graham. They don't like each other.

They were once friends, with Rodriguez hiring Graham away from a high school job in Texas to coach at West Virginia in 2002, but that clearly is no longer the case. Neither says much about the other on the record, but during a visit to ESPN's offices by Pac-12 coaches shortly after they were hired, they stood in stony silence for several minutes just a few feet from each other without making eye contact, despite a certain charming reporter offering up some wonderful repartee that typically would inspire conviviality from even a pair of gargoyles.

That dislike extends through the coaching staffs. Arizona assistants Calvin Magee and Tony Dews, who worked for Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan, spent a single season coaching with Graham at Pittsburgh after Rodriguez was fired at Michigan. When they rejoined Rodriguez at Arizona, Graham called them "mercenaries," according to a tweet from Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Yet history and personal feelings go only so far in the national college football conversation when your team is simply battling for bowl eligibility. Or one team is good and the other shows up only as a spoiler. That has been the case more often than not in the Territorial Cup, which was first contested in 1899, 13 years before Arizona became an official state in the union.

That is where Graham and Rodriguez have most enriched this rivalry: Both teams are now good. This will be the first time they meet as ranked teams since 1986. Both are 9-2. The last time they met as teams with at least nine wins? 1975. Arizona State has posted nine wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97. Arizona owns its best record since 1998.

Both are 6-2 in Pac-12 play. If UCLA should lose to Stanford in a game played simultaneously with the Territorial Cup at 3:30 p.m. ET, then the champion of Arizona also becomes the Pac-12 South Division champ and would play Oregon for the conference title on Dec. 5. Further, the winner also might set itself up to be selected as practically a home team for the Fiesta Bowl. That is, unless the winner somehow beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and slips into the College Football Playoff, a not outrageous scenario, by the way.

“This game is the single most important game every year for us and for our fans," Graham said. "Obviously it has a lot more meaning with both teams going for 10th win and Pac-12 South championship on the line. So, yeah, there’s a little extra to it.”

Said Rodriguez: "I don’t believe that ‘if you only win one game but you beat ASU, it’s a good year,’ but it is the most important game on our schedule because it is the rivalry game. The rivalry game is always the most important when you see it with no records. Now that we both have had pretty good years and have even more at stake, this makes it of added importance."

Of added importance to both coaches, though perhaps more for Rodriguez: Graham is 2-0 against Rich Rod since they arrived in the desert. No Arizona State coach opened his career in Tempe at 3-0 versus the Wildcats. While folks in Tucson appreciate the undeniably good job Rodriguez has done rebuilding the program, they also would really, really not like to spend a third year listening to Sun Devils fans squawking at them.

In the Sun Devils' last visit to Tucson, they overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 41-34. Last year, the Sun Devils rolled the Wildcats 58-21, a blowout win that earned them home-field advantage in the Pac-12 title game against Stanford.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenTaylor Kelly and the Sun Devils are looking to finish the season strong.
The intrigue this year is at quarterback. Arizona's starter, impressive redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, couldn't play the second half of the Wildcats' win last weekend over Utah because of an ankle injury that has been hounding him for some time. He's decidedly questionable, and senior Jesse Scroggins will make his first career start if Solomon can't play.

For Arizona State, there's senior Taylor Kelly. The three-year starter wants to finish his career 3-0 against the Wildcats. He has been inconsistent since returning from a foot injury, but he seemed to find his rhythm in the second half last week against Washington State. His life also will be easier with the expected return of receiver Jaelen Strong from a concussion.

Arizona's home-field advantage might not be much of an advantage. The Sun Devils have won five of the past seven in Tucson, and this rivalry has surprisingly not favored the home team of late. The visitor owns an 8-6 edge in the past 14 matchups, and the Sun Devils' win in Tempe last year ended a four-game winning streak for the road team.

Good news for those who like thrillers: Seven of the past 10 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The four games before last year's blowout were decided by a total of 15 points, with a fourth-quarter comeback, two blocked extra points, a late field goal and a red zone stand being the difference.

Graham said the game is about the players, not the coaches. Rodriguez, though he probably doesn't want to be seen as agreeing with Graham, said about the same.

"There is a lot of stake," he said. "It is our 19 seniors' last home game, so I would be shocked if preparation wasn’t at an ultimate high.”

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
9:00
AM ET
All six Pac-12 games on Saturday were decided by at least three scores. For that, Pac-12, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul ... but here are some helmet stickers.

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: Kelly and the Sun Devils got off to a horrible start against Washington State, but that's but a distant memory after the senior finished strong in a 52-31 victory. He completed 12 of his final 14 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The freshman ran for a career-high 218 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder, in Arizona's 42-10 victory over Utah. As Wilson goes, so do the Wildcats. Arizona is 8-0 when Wilson rushes for 19 or more yards.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: In his final game at Autzen Stadium (probably), Mariota turned in a typical performance: 24 for 32, 323 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and ran for 73 yards and another score on eight carries in a 44-10 victory over Colorado. His 42 touchdowns this year (passing and rushing), breaks Matt Barkley's single-season Pac-12 record from 2011.

Blake Martinez, LB, Stanford: Martinez recorded two interceptions and forced a fumble to help Stanford force five turnovers in a 38-17 victory against California -- the most it has forced in a game since Nov. 27, 2010 against Oregon State. He's the first player with two interceptions in the Big Game since Cal's Nnamdi Asomugha in 2001.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: Hundley threw for 326 yards, accounted for four touchdowns and broke Cade McNown's school record for total offense (now at 11,353) in the Bruins' 38-20 victory over USC. He's also the first UCLA quarterback since McNown to win three consecutive games against the Trojans.

Cyler Miles, QB, Washington: Miles turned in his best performance of the season, completing 18 of 23 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns without an interception to help the Huskies become bowl eligible with a 37-13 victory over Oregon State.

Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State: Mayle showed why he's a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award with 15 catches for 252 yards -- his sixth 100-yard receiving game of the season. He cracked the 100-catch mark in the game (101) and set WSU's new single-season receiving record (1,404 yards).

Cody Kessler quietly becomes star QB

November, 13, 2014
Nov 13
11:00
AM ET
LOS ANGELES -- Since the turn of the millennium, there has been no more celebrated spot in college football than quarterback at USC. It's produced two Heisman Trophy winners and household names pretty much every year, even after the NCAA kicked its jackboot through the front door of Heritage Hall. If you are a college football fan of just about any stripe, you know who the USC quarterback is.

So... who is the USC quarterback?

Most Pac-12 fans, after perhaps a short pause, went, "I know this... Kessler... Oh, Cody Kessler!" Just about everyone else drew a blank.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillUSC quarterback Cody Kessler has been able to celebrate 25 touchdown passes this season.
And yet Kessler is turning in a season that pretty much matches -- at least statistically -- the best of the USC QBs, and his name is replacing many of them in the Trojans record book.

Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his throws while averaging 283 yards per game, with 25 TDs and just two interceptions. He is fourth nationally in both completion percentage and passing efficiency (168.2), and that efficiency number is on pace to break Mark Sanchez's season record of 164.6 set in 2008. Kessler ranks ninth in the nation in ESPN's Total QBR.

Against Power 5 opponents, his passing efficiency (164.7) is second best in the nation, his completion percentage (70.0 percent) is third and his passing TDs (21) are fourth. No quarterback in the nation has thrown as many passes as Kessler and had only two interceptions, and only one besides Kessler has thrown at least 25 TDs with just two interceptions.

Of course, ahead of Kessler in most measures and casting a long shadow is Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the Heisman. That isn't surprising. But it is surprising that in the Pac-12, owner the nation's deepest and most talented class of quarterbacks, it is Kessler who leads the race for second-team All-Pac-12 and not, say, UCLA's Brett Hundley or Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Kessler's season has not gone unnoticed, as he is one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, presented to the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback, along with Mariota and Hundley.

It also should be noted his numbers shouldn't be surprising as he quietly finished the 2013 season on a notable uptick, particularly after Lane Kiffin was fired. After throwing two interceptions at Arizona State last Sept. 28 -- Kiffin was fired at LAX the same night -- Kessler threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the final nine games, and just one pick in the final five.

"If you look at the second half of last season, I think Cody really came on with his game," first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "It just continued to build on that momentum. No. 1 is his confidence, his belief in himself and the guys around him. No. 2, we were implementing a new scheme that fits his skill set. He's been making really good decisions with the football."

This season, Kessler threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Colorado last month and followed up earlier this month with five against Washington State while reaching 400 yards for the first time in his career.

"He doesn't take any chances, that's the biggest thing," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful out there."

Leach has seen two Kesslers. In 2013, Kessler went 8 of 13 for 41 yards with an interception in a Cougars upset at USC, a notable nail in Kiffin's coffin. It has been noted frequently that Kiffin seemed to prefer big-armed Max Wittek in USC's 2013 QB competition, even though Kessler had decisively outplayed him as Matt Barkley's backup and during their spring and preseason battle. Nonetheless, Kessler has refused to take shots at Kiffin, who seemed reluctant to let Kessler throw the ball downfield, despite a talented crew of receivers.

“We had a good relationship that last year. He obviously gave me the job after a while," Kessler said of Kiffin. “[But], at times, I felt like I could do more and I wasn’t allowed to do more.”

Kessler was freed up when Clay Helton took over play-calling last season and has thrived with Sarkisian calling the Trojans' new up-tempo offense, with Helton remaining as QB coach.

Said Kessler, “I’ve really, really taken the next step with Coach Helton and Coach Sark, studying a lot more film throughout the week, knowing my opponent, knowing what look we’re going to get when we line up in what formation, knowing where I’m going with the ball each and every play.”

While Kessler's numbers have been outstanding, the ultimate measure of all USC quarterbacks is winning championships. At the very least, they need to beat UCLA and Notre Dame.

The junior almost certainly will have to wait until next year to make a run at the Pac-12 title. After a date with California on Thursday, he faces the Bruins and Fighting Irish over the next two weekends.

Here's a guess that if he beats both of them, his Q rating will go up considerably in Los Angeles and across the country.
video
TEMPE, Ariz. -- We now have a single team atop the Pac-12's previously muddled South Division, as No. 14 Arizona State outlasted No. 17 Utah 19-16 in overtime. Here's how we arrived at clarity -- for now.

How the game was won: It required overtime -- after an 8 p.m. PT kickoff, no less -- but Arizona State prevailed when Zane Gonzalez connected on a 36-yard field goal. The field goal was good enough to win in the extra frame because Utah kicker Andy Phillips -- among the nation's best kickers -- missed a 35-yard attempt on the Utes' initial possession. In fact, he missed twice, but the first miss was saved by a Utah timeout.

Game ball goes to: Gonzalez connected on four of five field goals -- 20, 45, 30 and 36 yards -- to give the Sun Devils the critical win.

What it means: It means Arizona State is now alone atop the South Division with three conference games to play.

Playoff implication: A one-loss Pac-12 champion has an outstanding chance to earn a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, so the Sun Devils are in position to earn a berth if they win out.

What's next: Arizona State will take a break from the rugged Pac-12 schedule to play host to Notre Dame. Although the game won't matter in the Pac-12 standings, a loss would likely end the Sun Devils' hopes for a berth in the CFP and would hurt the national perception of the Pac-12. Utah will host Oregon on Saturday, so it has a chance to bounce back in a big way and keep its South Division hopes alive.

Plenty of intrigue: UCLA at Arizona State

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
10:53
AM ET
Blame Chip Kelly and his philosophy of "nameless, faceless opponents," but a lot of coaches no longer admit that certain games are bigger than others. A top-10 matchup? Whatever: You prepare the same every week. This makes some sense, of course. Coaches expect players to always do their best, so why would their best be any better against a ranked foe?

We get it. Still, some games ARE bigger than others, such as UCLA's visit to Arizona State on Thursday night. These are two top-15 teams, and the winner the past three seasons in this matchup has won the Pac-12's South Division title.

While Bruins coach Jim Mora wouldn't play along --“We try to treat them all the same,” he said -- Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was a bit more accommodating for media seeking a "This one is huge!" angle.

“I don’t need any motivational speeches for this game, or have to worry about the kids being flat because they are going to be fired up and ready to go," he said. "This is one of the marquee games each year, and quite honestly, it’s one of the games that we always put a star by. The next two games will be very critical to our team’s success this season.”

[+] EnlargeArizona State Sun Devils
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsArizona State carried a 35-13 lead into halftime at UCLA last season and then held on to win 38-33.
Arizona State visits another South contender, USC, next, but that game will lose some of its heft if the Sun Devils falter at home against the Bruins.

Besides being a key matchup, this game is intriguing from a national sense because we don't yet know what to make of either team. Are either legitimate candidates for the inaugural College Football Playoff? Early returns have been mixed. And -- oh, by the way -- there are questions behind center for both.

Graham announced that starting QB Taylor Kelly is out with a foot injury, though he told reporters Tuesday that he expects Kelly back inside of monthlong-plus projections from reporters. That means big-armed redshirt junior backup Mike Bercovici, the likely 2015 starter, will make his first career start well ahead of projections. UCLA? While most expect Brett Hundley to return after an elbow injury forced him out of the Texas game on Sept. 13, Mora has been tight-lipped about where things stand. He wouldn't even say that the hero of the win over the Longhorns -- backup Jerry Neuheisel -- would start if Hundley isn't available.

“He’s going to play," Graham barked before the question about Hundley's status was even finished. "There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to play.”

He later added, “Always prepare for the best one. If Brett Hundley doesn’t play, that makes it easier for us.”

The story of last season's 38-33 ASU victory in Pasadena was twofold: 1. Arizona State started furiously and then held on for dear life; 2. Hundley, as athletic as he is, couldn't avoid being sacked a season-high nine times -- a team 10-year high actually -- by the aggressive Sun Devils defense.

Arizona State rolled to a 35-13 lead at halftime but was outscored 20-3 in the second half. The Bruins also had two opportunities to take the lead in the fourth quarter. They had a first-and-goal at the Sun Devils' 11-yard line on their second-to-last possession but came away with no points, and two holding calls undid their last possession after driving into Sun Devils territory again.

The veteran Sun Devils front gave the Bruins' young offensive line -- three true freshman starters -- fits. Considering UCLA's offensive line didn't get off to a strong start this season and the ASU defense is pretty much completely rebuilt, this apparent weakness-on-weakness matchup will be critical, though obviously having the more mobile Hundley could be a big boost for UCLA.

Mora said his offensive line has improved significantly since its worrisome debut at Virginia.

“I’m happy where they are at and I’m even more happy where they are headed," he said.

UCLA certainly has been more tested. This will be the Bruins' third road game of the season against a Power 5 conference foe, and all three of their wins were not decided until deep into the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils have rolled through an overmatched early schedule, their closest contest being a 38-24 win at Colorado on Sept. 13.

While every game is critical for teams with national aspirations, this matchup will allow one consensus contender to remain unblemished while putting a substantial blotch on its rival's résumé, as a head-to-head win could function as a two-game advantage in the divisional standings.

So whatever the coaches say, this is a big one. It looked that way it the preseason, and it looks that way on game day.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- On Jan. 6, 2012, Mike Bercovici was chilling with some friends when he got a call from then-Arizona State receiver Aaron Pflugrad. There was some big news for the Sun Devils' backup quarterback. In a surprise to many, junior Brock Osweiler, the team's starting quarterback, had decided to enter the NFL draft.

That is how an article began in advance of Arizona State spring practices in March 2012. Thirty-two months later, Bercovici can still recall exactly how he felt upon hearing the news of Osweiler's departure.

“It was an opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life," he said this week.

In 2011, Bercovici had beaten out Taylor Kelly for the backup quarterback spot. That made him a slight favorite to win the job over Kelly and redshirt freshman Michael Eubank in advance of the 2012 season. When spring practices ended, Bercovici was viewed as slightly ahead of Eubank, with Kelly a fairly distant third option.

Things changed. Dramatically. Kelly won the job -- coach Todd Graham even admitted at the time that it was a surprise -- and has played his way onto Arizona State's all-time top QB list over two-plus seasons. Bercovici has had to settle for being considered one of the conference's more talented backups, not that he ever got comfortable viewing himself that way.

“My hunger to be a starting quarterback hasn’t changed since I lost that competition," he said.

Just as the vice president is a heartbeat from the Oval Office, so a backup quarterback is an unfortunate play away from taking over an offense. The backup quarterback is the irrelevant mop-up guy with a backward baseball cap on the sideline -- until he becomes a team's most important player.

For Bercovici, that transition happened when Kelly hurt his foot on the Sun Devils' final possession of the third quarter Sept. 13 at Colorado.

[+] EnlargeMike Bercovici
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMike Bercovici will make his first career start against No. 11 UCLA on Thursday night.
Bercovici, who has thrown 24 career passes, will therefore make his first career start this week. As if that isn't big enough, it will be Thursday night against No. 11 UCLA.

So, yeah, big stage for a first start. But the relentlessly upbeat Graham said he is completely comfortable with Bercovici starting.

“We feel like we’ve got one of the best one-two quarterback combinations in the country," Graham said.

“He’s one of the last guys I’m worried about," he added later. "If this happened to any other team -- or any other team I’ve had -- it would be devastating.”

There's a significant distance, however, between being theoretically good and proving it on the field. While Bercovici is well-versed with the Sun Devils' offense and has an undeniably strong arm, he remains an unknown commodity. The chief concern is that he too often believes he can use that strong arm to fire a pass through a window in the secondary that isn't much larger than a keyhole. He knows this just as well as his coaches. In fact, he recalls how it might have cost him the job during 2012 preseason camp.

“At the start of camp, something in the minds of every quarterback is not turning the ball over," Bercovici said. "That’s what we stress here at Arizona State. If you go back and look at film, I threw two interceptions. I knew from there I was playing catch-up. Taylor didn’t throw any interceptions.”

Said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell: “That’s huge. That’s part of his development. Obviously, he has a tremendous arm. He can make every throw on the field that needs to be made. But it’s also understanding progressions and getting to when it’s time to go to that next progression and taking what the defense gives you.”

Bercovici can't try to overcome two-plus years of frustration on every pass of every drive. Against UCLA, he needs to distribute the ball to his playmakers, of which he has plenty, and not force the action. Although he might get a few more shots downfield -- and fewer runs -- than Kelly, Bercovici's first priority is to protect the football. Considering the past two games between these teams have come down to the final possession, every miscue figures to be as critical -- if not more so -- as every big play.

It's probably a good sign, then, that Bercovici doesn't sound like a guy looking for personal vindication.

“I feel like it is my duty to have no setbacks with me at quarterback," he said. "It’s my duty to make sure we’re still undefeated when [Kelly] comes back. I owe that to him, and I owe that to the team.”

Such thinking shouldn't be too surprising, considering Bercovici's decision not to transfer already revealed him to be an unselfish guy. While many college quarterbacks quickly go looking for starting jobs after losing a competition -- Eubank is now the starting quarterback at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama -- Bercovici opted to stick it out. Yes, he thought about leaving, but those thoughts lost.

“Obviously, those thoughts race through your head, but it [would have been] a bitter taste to put on different colors," he said.

While the present is big enough for the 15th-ranked Sun Devils, there also is the future. Bercovici stuck around because he saw himself as the starter in 2015, when Kelly heads to the NFL. If anyone knows that's not a given, though, it's Bercovici. For one, there's a potential challenge from touted incoming freshman Brady White.

Playing well and winning while Kelly is out for what might be a month or more would significantly bolster his case for next year. Bercovici knew that question was coming.

“In theory, it would," he said. "But for these seniors, these guys I’ve been around for four years, it’s their time right now. My 100 percent focus is I want to be the best quarterback I can be on Thursday night for those guys.”

In other words, the future is now for Bercovici. It's not how he envisioned things 32 months ago, but he has too much on his plate this week to quibble with the whims of fortune.

After four weeks, we still know nothing

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
11:00
AM ET
video
The Socratic smugness that enveloped me in the wee hours of Sunday morning was a revelation of sorts, though a recognition of futility isn't terribly comforting.

After the tumult of another thrilling weekend, Twitter spun and spun with ostensible wisdom, with Pac-12 and college football philosophers insisting this or that was true based on this or that result. As for me, all I knew is that I knew nothing. Therefore, I am wiser than Twitter, for neither Twitter nor I appears to know anything great and good; but Twitter fancies it knows something, although it knows nothing. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than Twitter, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

Ya know?

Dominant teams? There may not be any. Florida State, Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon etc. Each seems to be surviving rather than asserting itself. Same holds true in the Pac-12.

The good news is Socrates also believed an unexamined college football season is not worth following. Further, after four confounding weeks, both nationally and within the Pac-12, we figure to scrape and claw toward more substantial revelations this week, at least on the West Coast. Probably. Maybe.

First, just the facts.

Seven Pac-12 teams remain unbeaten, though hardly unblemished. Three in the North Division: Oregon, Washington and Oregon State. And four in the South: Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah.

At least one of those will go down before next weekend, as UCLA visits Arizona State in a critical South clash on Thursday. Both teams have looked vulnerable. Both teams have QB questions, with Taylor Kelly definitely out for the Sun Devils, and Brett Hundley trying to come back from a hyper-extended elbow that knocked him out of the nail-biting win over Texas.

Oregon, the putative top Pac-12 team and favorite to represent the conference in the College Football Playoff, is off this week. The Ducks might be good enough to win the national championship or they might lose three games due to an injury-riddled offensive line or a leaky defense. We've seen Oregon dispatch mighty Michigan State with a dominant second half on both sides of the ball and then cling for dear life at Washington State, the only conference team presently owning a losing record.

Just as UCLA-Arizona State is a separation game in the South, so is Stanford’s visit to Washington on Saturday in the North. We have little feeling on the potency of either. Both have flashed potential on both sides of the ball. Yet both also have looked feckless and discombobulated, which is surprising when you consider the reputations of their respective head coaches. The winner becomes the top potential foil for Oregon in the North.

Or might that actually be Oregon State? We don’t really know what to make of the Beavers, who visit USC on Saturday, because they haven't played anyone. For that matter, we don’t really know what to make of USC either because it was good enough to beat Stanford and bad enough to be humiliated at Boston College.

Things are perhaps just as intriguing -- read: hard to figure -- among the hoi polloi, among the teams not widely viewed as serious threats to win the conference. And by "widely viewed" keep in mind the chattering classes tend to talk themselves into general agreement based their need to wheeze carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, yours truly not exempted by any means.

Colorado's trip to California is a game that matches teams that both said, “We can win this one!” in the preseason. The loser’s long shot bowl hopes will take a huge hit. You could probably say the same about Washington State’s trip to Utah, though a Utes victory might propel them into the Top 25 and transform them into a popular new dark horse in the South.

In fact, our limited intelligence after four weeks might merely be a confirmation of what most suspected in the preseason: There will be no easy outs this fall, which might be as much a function of the top slipping as the bottom rising. Sure, Washington State is 1-3, but the Cougs pushed Oregon to the brink. A little less brilliance from Marcus Mariota and a little more help from the officials and things might have been different. Colorado is 2-2 but it gave Arizona State trouble, the Buffs rushing for 232 yards against the Sun Devils' rebuilt defense. California was a Hail Mary pass away from winning at Arizona and improving to 3-0. Utah won convincingly at Michigan, which might not mean much but it's still a happy ending in the Big House against a team wearing cool winged helmets.

So expect to muddle forward toward clarity, even if we encounter a few false summits along the way. No Pac-12 team appears unbeatable. And no team appears incapable of playing competently. Each fan base should remain hopeful while not ruling out the possibility of eventual despondency.

The good news, as Socrates noted via Plato, is there are two ruling and directing principles in a college football season. It always at least teases our innate desire for pleasure. And, at its end, we acquire grounds to judge excellence.

ASU QB Taylor Kelly (foot) ruled out

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
8:20
PM ET
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State senior quarterback Taylor Kelly will miss the 15th-ranked Sun Devils' next game with a right foot injury, though his status beyond that is uncertain.

Kelly was injured during Saturday's game at Colorado and left on crutches and wearing a protective boot.

Senior Mike Bercovici will replace Kelly for Arizona State's game against No. 12 UCLA on Sept. 25, but coach Todd Graham has said he will not update his quarterback's status until after that game.

Kelly is a three-year starter at Arizona State and is the school's all-time leader in completion percentage. He has thrown for 625 yards and six touchdowns in the Sun Devils' first three games, all wins.

Injuries, implosion muddle South picture

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:00
AM ET
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Wait. That's been used before. But, with apologies to Dickens, it fits. The Pac-12 weekend was a tale of one division, two teams, two cities, two quarterbacks, and it was a day of thrills and it was a day of misery.

The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.

A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.

[+] EnlargeAntwaun Woods
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesUSC's shocking loss to Boston College underscored the vulnerability within the Pac-12 South division.
Our second city is Tempe, Arizona, where UCLA will be on Thursday, Sept. 25, squaring off with defending South Division champion Arizona State, which beat Colorado on Saturday but also lost its star senior quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who beat out Hundley for second-team All-Pac-12 last year. Seeing Kelly on crutches due to a foot injury -- and his body language -- probably won't fuel great expectations that he will be ready for the Bruins.

The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.

Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.

What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.

The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.

Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.

While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.
video

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Without quarterback Brett Hundley, UCLA could not win. It didn't matter that Texas was beaten up and beaten down. It didn't matter that Hundley was just one guy. He was The Guy, the face of the Bruins, the biggest reason some touted them in the preseason as national title contenders. Moreover, to put it gently, the depth chart behind him was unpromising.

Backup Jerry Neuheisel? Son of Rick Neuheisel, the guy who was fired before Jim Mora built the Bruins into contenders? The guy who some suspected got a scholarship only because his dad was the head coach? No way.

So when Hundley was surrounded by trainers after going down with an apparent elbow injury in the first quarter against the Longhorns, you could sense impending doom. You could sense the Bruins, who had struggled to beat Virginia and Memphis with Hundley, joining teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State on the slag heap of exposed contenders.

[+] EnlargeJerry Neuheisel
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel got a hero's exit after leading No. 12 UCLA to a come-from-behind 20-17 victory over Texas.
Texas thought the same thing.

"[Neuheisel and Hundley] are two different quarterbacks," Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs said. "One guy is up for the Heisman and the other guy is someone we've never heard of."

Yet there was Neuheisel eyeballing Diggs' cornerbacking counterpart, Duke Thomas, in man coverage against receiver Jordan Payton with three minutes left in the game, sensing his moment had arrived.

"As soon as I saw [Thomas'] eyes, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this might just work,'" Neuheisel said.

The Bruins were down four on Texas' 33-yard line and pretty much hadn't allowed Neuhiesel to throw downfield since he came off the bench, but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone expected man coverage and decided Payton might get free with a double move.

In fact, Thomas appeared to bite on Neuheisel's pump fake, and the ball arrived soft and sweet into Payton's hands. Touchdown. After the defense forced a four-and-done, the Bruins hoisted Neuheisel onto their shoulders. They'd won 20-17 without Hundley to improve to 3-0.

"I felt like it was going to be a little bit of a defining moment for us," UCLA coach Jim Mora said of when Hundley went down.

While it might seem to some like an ugly 3-0 for the nation's No. 12 team, it was a dream come true for Neuheisel. Literally. He told his teammates that at halftime. He grew up dreaming of following in his dad's footsteps as the UCLA quarterback, imagining throwing winning touchdowns in his backyard. The general expectation from fans and media, however, was the redshirt sophomore would remain on the bench behind Hundley, holding for field goals and then backing up whoever won the job next year when Hundley was off to the NFL.

Yet a point of emphasis from Mora and the Bruins after their victory was never doubting Neuheisel.

"We all expected it," Payton said.

Said Mora, "His team fricken' loves him. There was never any doubt."

Well, there was and is some doubt. What's next, for one, is a big issue. Hundley's status is questionable, to say the least. Mora would only say Hundley would be evaluated by UCLA team doctors back in Los Angeles. While beating a struggling Texas team with a backup QB is one thing, the Bruins visit Arizona State on Sept. 25 after a bye week. That's an entirely different deal, a critical South Division showdown. Of course, in an unfortunate twist of fate, both teams could be without their starting quarterbacks, as Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado on Saturday.

Neuheisel, who completed 23 of 30 passes for 178 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, could square off with Sun Devils backup Mike Bercovici in a game with major Pac-12, and even national, implications. The Bruins, however, were still operating inside the 24-hour rule Saturday, which means their primary concern is enjoying the present, not refocusing on the next foe.

Neuheisel is his father's son. He looks and sounds like Rick Neuheisel, and he's quick with a quip like his dad. When he walked into the postgame interview room, he noted, "Holders don't get this kind of publicity." After the elder Neuheisel led the Bruins to an upset of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl, he cracked wise during a postgame interview about the Fighting Illini band blasting music behind him.

"I just talked to my dad," Jerry Neuheisel said. "He said, 'You did it. It's kind of a Neuheisel thing.'"

On a day when UCLA's crosstown rival, USC, wilted at Boston College, the Bruins found a way to dig deep, overcome adversity and win. UCLA might not be a beautiful 3-0, but it is 3-0 and that's what matters.

"They never flinched," Mora said. "They never blinked. That's kind of what we are trying to become. And we're getting closer and closer every day."
The question for Arizona State coach Todd Graham focused on his defense. This was not a new topic. The Sun Devils are pretty much completely rebuilding their defense after losing nine starters from the 2013 Pac-12 South Division champions, and it obviously had experienced some ups and downs against second-rate competition through two games.

"We’ve just got to eliminate the mental errors and the breakdowns," Graham said. "These guys are fast and we’re gaining depth on the inside on the defensive line. We have seven or eight guys we feel good about playing. Five corners we feel good about playing. We’re getting there."

Then, after a pause, Graham added his own footnote, one that probably anticipated what his listeners were thinking while he talked about his questionable defense.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham and ASU's explosive offense will face a Colorado defense that yielded an average of 34.5 points and 5.7 yards per play against Colorado State and UMass.
"Our offense has helped a lot, too," he said. "That helps a lot. Our offense is going to score a bunch of points."

The best defense, in ASU's case, at least in the early going, is going to be a good offense.

If you're looking for a reason why the No. 16 Sun Devils probably feel pretty comfortable about their trip to Colorado on Saturday, it's their offense. Though averaging 51.5 points per game against Weber State and New Mexico isn't exactly going to make the front page of the New York Times, it seems notable when that offense is facing a Buffaloes defense that yielded an average of 34.5 points and 5.7 yards per play against Colorado State and UMass. Against that weak schedule, those two numbers still rank last in the Pac-12.

The Buffs are young on defense and it has showed thus far, so there is no question where ASU holds a decided edge. Though second-year coach Mike MacIntyre said nice things about the Sun Devils' defense -- "I see a lot of athletes. I see a lot of players who can make plays," he said -- it's pretty obvious what is keeping him up at night this week. Asked about which player most concerns him on the Sun Devils' offense, he didn't feel a need to be specific.

"Shoot, all 11," MacIntyre said. "Their line is good, their running backs are good, their quarterback is excellent. Their receivers are big and their tight ends are good. Their offense is one of the most talented in the Pac-12, no doubt about it."

That is the issue for the Buffs as they struggle to find a way up in the South Division pecking order. They have struggled on both sides of the ball so far, and they probably need the Sun Devils' offense to devolve into a flurry of turnovers and miscues to have any chance Saturday. With running back D.J. Foster running well and receiver Jaelen Strong surrounded by a better supporting cast than last season and a physical, athletic offensive line, veteran quarterback Taylor Kelly probably feels like a lottery winner strutting down Rodeo Drive.

The Buffs are starting freshmen at both defensive ends, which is probably intriguing for Foster. That also probably means they will have to blitz to pressure Kelly, and that is dangerous because Kelly's back-shoulder fade to Strong versus man coverage is one of the most difficult plays to defend in the conference.

Still, this should be the stoutest test for the Sun Devils thus far. It is, after all, the conference opener for both. If they pass, then they can earnestly eyeball the critical Sept. 25 visit from UCLA. Both teams have a bye with which to give their preparations extra mustard.

What about the rest of Pac-12?

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
9:00
PM ET
A lot the Pac-12 focus through Weeks 1 and 2 were on Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC. The reason for that was preseason hype and big games, as well as off-field issues (USC).

But, as some of you have pointed out, there are eight other Pac-12 teams. Though these teams have mostly played under-the-radar games that haven't been terribly revealing, it still seems reasonable to take a measure of the Pac-12 teams that have yet to play a marquee matchup.

Arizona (2-0): The Wildcats actually got plenty of preseason and early-season coverage for two reasons: 1. Interesting QB competition; 2. They've played FBS teams on Friday and Thursday nights so far, which means more ownership of the available window. The Wildcats are receiving votes in both polls. The visit from Nevada on Saturday could be tricky. Ask Washington State.

What we've learned: That QB Anu Solomon can look great. And not so great. Same with the defense. The Wildcats might be a dark horse in the South Division. Or they might not be. Keep in mind, this team could be 4-0 and potentially ranked as it heads into a bye week before visiting Oregon on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona State (2-0): Sun Devils fans are probably the most annoyed with their lack of attention after winning the South Division last year. The biggest reason for the lack of coverage is the opponents: An FCS team in Week 1 (Weber State) and New Mexico, a team that has gone 10-53 over the past five-plus years. At this time last year, ASU already had a win over Wisconsin, with Stanford, USC and Notre Dame the next three games. And, curiously, Arizona fans were complaining about all the attention the Sun Devils were getting.

What we've learned: Nothing. Zero. We already knew the QB Taylor Kelly, WR Jaelen Strong and RB D.J. Foster would be good. We also haven't learned much about a rebuilt defense. While the visit to Colorado could be somewhat revealing, the Buffaloes already lost to Colorado State. No, the Sun Devils won't take center stage, despite a national ranking, until UCLA visits on Thursday, Sept. 25.

California (2-0): Cal fans, just look at that record. Let it flow over you like warm sunshine. Your Bears already have doubled their 2013 win total! ESPN reporter and College Football Playoff guru Heather Dinich ranked you 25th! While neither win -- Northwestern nor Sacramento State -- rates as earth-shattering, the Wildcats are a Big Ten team and, well... 2 and Oh!

What we've learned: Probably a lot. For one, Cal is no longer a patsy. That doesn't mean it surges to bowl eligibility in Year 2 under Sonny Dykes, but this is clearly a vastly superior team compared to the hapless 2013 version. The Bears played better in their first two games than they did at any point last season. Welcome back to the living, Cal. The Pac-12 blog again awaits those joyous 12,000-word sabermetrically sound breakdowns of why Stanford might have the same red zone futility it had against USC in the Big Game.

Colorado (1-1): It wasn't just that the Buffaloes lost to Colorado State in the opener, it was that they lost because the Rams owned the line of scrimmage. Not good. The performance at UMass, which went 1-11 last year, also was pretty mediocre, though there was some flint shown in a comeback victory. Buffs bowl hopes feel pretty remote.

What we've learned: It might be another slog for Colorado. The preseason hope for Season 2 of Mike MacIntyre's rebuilding job was a strong 2-0. That would give a young team confidence. But, based on the early returns, this team could take a step back compared to 2013. Even the visit from Hawaii, which challenged both Washington and Oregon State, looks like a tossup. Of course, if the Buffs go nose-to-nose with the Sun Devils on Saturday ...

Oregon State (2-0): Bottom line is 2-0 is good for a team that has been notoriously slow out of the gate, even during good years. While things got a little testy with Hawaii in the second half, there's reason for optimism as the Beavers head into the bye week before playing host to San Diego State.

What we've learned: Not too much. We don't yet know what to make of Hawaii, which is obviously much improved over the program that won four games over the past two-plus years. It appears the Beavers rushing offense is much better, as it is averaging 170 yards per game compared to 94 last year. A trip to USC on Sept. 27 could be a major reveal.

Utah (2-0): The Utes looked good over the weekend on both sides of the ball while whipping Fresno State, but they've been outstanding in nonconference games as a member of the Pac-12, going 10-1. It's the conference games that will measure Utah's improvement.

What we've learned: There have been some hints that this might be Utah's best Pac-12 team, and that starts with quality behind center in QB Travis Wilson. Seeing that Michigan got pounded by Notre Dame, there's no reason Utah can't go into the Big House and get a win after their off week. At 3-0, Utes fans would be thinking about more than just any old bowl game. Still, the visit from Washington State the following weekend is more important than the Ann Arbor jaunt.

Washington (2-0): The Huskies have been pushed to the brink by Hawaii, which went 1-11 last year, and an FCS team, as Eastern Washington scored 52 points against a struggling pass defense. The offense looked much better with QB Cyler Miles behind center, but the defense -- the perceived preseason strength -- has been mediocre-to-bad so far.

What we've learned: We've learned new coach Chris Petersen didn't bring a magical formula to make the Huskies dominant on both sides of the ball, at least not immediately. This team started off in the Top 25 but tumbled out after an unimpressive opener, and the battle with Eastern Washington didn't help the team's image. Still, Washington should open 4-0 before playing host to Stanford on Sept. 27. That's when we take a true measure of the Huskies.

Washington State (0-2): No team has been more disappointing than Washington State. Just about every projection had the Cougars at 2-0, but they are the opposite. It's possible that Rutgers and Nevada will prove to be quality bowl teams, but that doesn't help a program that saw itself rising in the Pac-12 North.

What we've learned: Learned? That the defense and the offensive line still have issues, and those issues create problems for a team that can only pass the ball. Of course, it's possible the Cougs will be better when they get back to familiar Pac-12 terrain. The test of the season probably will come with back-to-back games at Utah and against California on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. The Cougs probably must win both to have bowl hopes.

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
10:00
AM ET
Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”
The eyes of the nation have finally turned west, where the cream of the crop in signal callers has risen to the top. The quarterback depth in the Pac-12 is second to none, and everyone is talking about it.

Here's UCLA coach Jim Mora's take: "I have great respect for the quarterbacks in this conference. Many of them will go on to have great [NFL] careers, but to me, I don't think it's even close -- I don't think there is another conference that has near the quality of quarterbacks."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsArizona State's Taylor Kelly likes being under the radar in a Pac-12 rich with quarterback talent.
Stanford's David Shaw also weighed in: "[I've] never seen anything like this where you have multiple guys in our conference that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and could lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in yards and yards per attempt in touchdown passes, and that could be any of five or six guys that could do this that this year."

There's only one problem: Players such as Shaw's own Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly -- two very good quarterbacks -- get lost in the shuffle.

The league has its headliner in Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. And if he's the main show, then UCLA's Brett Hundley is the opening act. He is, after all, the only other Pac-12 QB who's seriously considered a possible Heisman finalist at this point.

After those two, the conversation tends to tighten up, usually turning to the quarterbacks who are a bit different or doing one thing better than anyone else.

So people bring up Oregon State's Sean Mannion, who will likely take Matt Barkley's spot from the top of the Pac-12 career passing board ... midway through the season. They bring up Washington State's Connor Halliday. He's at the center of the Air Raid show and people want to know what it possibly looks like to average 55 pass attempts per game (about 20 more than the league average). Even USC quarterback Cody Kessler gets a little bit of love because of the Steve Sarkisian effect. Trojans fans want to watch that offense and see how it's going to change, and Kessler is at the middle of that moving puzzle.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Tommy LaPorte/Icon SportswireStanford's Kevin Hogan, who has an impressive mark against ranked teams, would be among the leaders in passing efficiency in most any conference.
Suddenly, Kelly and Hogan -- statistically, the third- and fourth-best QB's in the Pac-12 in 2013 (based on an adjusted QBR) -- are back to No. 6 and No. 7 in the conversation. And how many actually get that far in the conversation? Few.

As the nation turns to the Pac-12, football fans want to know who's best, who's next best and who's different. So Hogan and Kelly -- outside of their own respective fan bases -- are often forgotten.

If Hogan or Kelly were to be dropped into nearly any other conference, they'd be in that "next-best" conversation -- in the Big Ten behind Ohio State's Braxton Miller, in the ACC behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston of Florida State or in the Big 12 behind Baylor's Bryce Petty (though they'd be in quite the debate against Texas Tech's Davis Webb).

In fact, Kelly would've led the Big Ten in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2013. In that same conference, Hogan would've been the most efficient passer. Kelly would've been tied for second in the SEC for touchdown passes while Hogan would've been tied for second in the Big 12 in the same category.

Still, on the East Coast or down South, there are no discussions about the fact that Hogan is 10-1 against top-25 opponents, or that he has led his team to two league championships. People don't discuss that Kelly led his team to the Pac-12 South championship last year, or that he'll likely finish his Arizona State career with more passing yards than Jake Plummer.

They don't discuss those things because they're too far down the ladder when it comes to the conversation -- and that's not their own fault.

At Pac-12 media days, Kelly told the Pac-12 Networks that he was OK with the fact that he maybe doesn't get as much credit nationally as he deserves.

"I'm comfortable with it," Kelly said. "I like being under the radar. It makes me work harder. I have a chip on my shoulders to outwork all those great quarterbacks in the country."

Like many of those great quarterbacks across the country, Kelly and Hogan will probably have the chance to play on Sundays. But the question that remains is whether their play on Saturdays this year will finally get people to start talking about these two talented quarterbacks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12